Follow the leaders

I like walking and hiking solo. Peace, quiet, my own pace. But sometimes a guided hike is a good thing. I have a lot to learn about the things I see. One way I try to expand my horizons is by participating in some of the guided hikes offered by the Forest Society throughout the year. The latest one was at the Society’s McCabe Forest in Antrim.

I found McCabe Forest a couple of years ago during a Society program. It was summertime, and the insects were out in force. Now, it’s autumn, the golden time, pre-ice and post-bugs. Forest trails are in style.

The Contoocook River edges the property. The river is lazy and low this time of year, but there’s evidence of how high it can get in periods of heavy rain. I thought about how often I’ve seen the Contoocook during my travels: I’ve hiked along the rail trail in Rindge and Jaffrey that follows the river from its source. I’ve walked the Peterborough Common Path in wintertime with the river beside me. I’ve seen it as I’ve explored Mast State Forest in Concord, just a few miles from where the river flows into the Merrimack.

River and forest, autumn, New Hampshire
Contoocook River, Antrim NH. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

I long ago abandoned the silly notion that if you’ve seen one forest trail, you’ve seen them all. Even a single trail can fascinate me with its changes from one season to the next. Accompanying someone familiar with a property can help me sharpen my powers of observation. How could I walk right by a mahogany-colored mushroom of majestic dimensions? I would have, without a guide. It would have been just a random thing blending in with the fallen leaves.

Fungi on the forest floor, dwarfing the leaves

People living in a house at one edge of the property enjoy a view that many of us might envy, with no sign of where the backyard ends and the Forest Society land begins. The “border,” such as it is, is figuratively afire with a very attractive shrub that is unfortunately an invasive nuisance. Burning bush is an apt name for it, with leaves whose color stands out from everything around them. Originally imported as an ornamental, burning bush has escaped garden plots all over the state and now crowds out native plants. In fact, it’s now a prohibited species in New Hampshire, so don’t try to buy it. In my own town, it’s one of several hard-to-control invasives on our Conservation Commission properties.

Burning bush, a invasive ornamental plant
Burning bush, attractive but invasive

These Forest Society hikes feature informal lessons on natural history, geology, and the people who have lived in the area. (If you’re ever on a Society hike with Dave Anderson, settle in for some good storytelling.) Also, it’s fun to meet people who share an interest in New Hampshire’s natural beauty. Keep the Forest Society in mind if you’re looking for guided-hike ideas. You’re bound to come across something interesting.

Madame Sherri’s castle may crumble, but trails remain

As reported by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the castle ruins at Madame Sherri Forest in Chesterfield are now a bit more ruined. Time, weather, and probably a few too many human footsteps resulted recently in a collapse of one of the arches supporting the stone staircase. That makes me a bit sad. I’ve always found the remains of the “castle” – actually a once-fancy house – to be a charming visual gateway to recreational land.

(See Forest Society photos of the damage.)

But don’t fret. There’s still enough of the old structure left to spark a smile and fire the imagination, even with caution tape in place. Even better, the adjacent trails are unaffected.

ruins of Madame Sherri Castle in Chesterfield, New Hampshire
Madame Sherri’s castle, before July 2021 arch collapse

The Chesterfield Conservation Commission maintains a list of trails and features. The 50-mile Wantastiquet-Monadnock trail runs through the property. My favorite feature of the forest is Indian Pond, a fairly easy walk from the forest’s small parking area.

The Madame Sherri Forest is still very much worth visiting. Enjoy what’s there.

Indian Pond, Madame Sherri Forest, Chesterfield New Hampshire
Foggy day at Indian Pond, Madame Sherri Forest, Chesterfield NH

Patching up

Four years, folks. That’s how long it’s been since I plunged into the Forest Society’s Forest Reservation Challenge. Visit 33 of the Society’s New Hampshire properties & get a patch, they said. Piece of cake, I said.

It took me four years to consume that particular piece of cake, I just got my patch.

Forest Society patch held by Ellen Kolb of New Hampshire
The Granite State Walker meets a challenge.

A few favorites

The project sent me to easy hikes and challenging ones, wetlands and high granite ledges, near home and darn near Canada. A few of the properties made deeper impressions than others.

Christine Lake, Stark, New Hampshire
Christine Lake, Kauffmann Forest, Stark NH
  • Kauffmann Forest, Stark. Christine Lake with its view of Victor Head and the Percy Peaks is a worthy destination in itself.
  • Dame Forest, Durham. When my daughter was a UNH student, I didn’t know this beautiful wetlands jewel was only a few miles away from campus. A long easy trail leads to Great Bay, and shorter trails are available. I had the place to myself for an unhurried visit when I was there a couple of years ago. I’m told that since COVID, it has become much more popular. I recommend a midweek visit.
  • Morse Preserve, Alton, with the summit of Pine Mountain. After seeing the wonderful view of Lake Winnipesaukee from there, and sharing the trail with only three other people, I may never visit Mount Major again.
  • Moose Mountains Reservation, Middleton/Brookfield. The view from Phoebe’s Nable turned my brown-bag lunch into a special event.

That’s not to mention the lime kilns, and the roads with whimsical names like Faraway and Local Ox Team, and autumn on Silver Mountain. Then there are a few spots suffering these days from too-much-love syndrome, and I’ll let you figure those out for yourself.

berries on hilltop, autumn in New Hampshire
Autumn on Silver Mountain, Lempster NH

How I did it

Pre-COVID, I had a job that sent me all over the state for various projects. I fit in Forest Society reservations where I could: a stop in Bethlehem on the way home from business in Littleton, a trail in Sandwich on my way to a presentation in Ossipee. A couple of times, I took one-day road trips with two or three reservations on the itinerary. The Society’s 5 Hikes programs helped me.

Bretzfelder Park, Bethlehem New Hampshire
Bretzfelder Park, a Forest Society property in Bethlehem NH

The Kingsbury-Chippewa property in Haverhill was particularly elusive. I finally got there as my husband and I returned from a weekend upstate, determined to avoid I-93. I said, “There’s this Forest Society reservation over in Haverhill…” and I may have mentioned something about the patch. Actually I’m sure I did. “Let’s go,” said my traveling companion. And so we did.

As is often the case, the journey – in this case journeys – mattered more than the arrival. The arrival took the form of a little embroidered patch. Every time I look at it, I’ll recall one of those journeys, and I’ll be smiling.

Exploring Forest Society properties

The Forest Society has some excellent resources. Check out NH Forest Explorer for a mobile-friendly guide to select reservations. Enjoy the 5 Hikes Challenge, a modified version of the older 5 Hikes in 5 Weeks program. Follow the Forest Society’s Facebook page for videos including virtual field trips to various properties.

Winnipesaukee view

A ten-dollar view for a two-dollar hike: that’s how a way-more-experienced hiker once described an easy scenic hike for me. Not a literal description, of course. The hike was free. The view was out of all proportion to the effort I’d put into getting there.

And so it was on a recent stop in Alton, when I visited the Forest Society’s Morse Preserve as part of the “5 Hikes” program. There’s a patch, you see…but I digress.

Lake Winnipesaukee and Alton Bay, New Hampshire. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
From Pine Mountain, Morse Preserve, Alton NH: Lake Winnipesaukee and Alton Bay. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

Alton’s Pine Mountain

A short uphill hike led me to the modest summit of Pine Mountain, where I was treated to a vista that included Lake Winnipesaukee and summits near and far.

Nearby was Mount Major, Alton’s principal crowd magnet, famed for the views from its summit. I once went there with a friend. The trail was mobbed from top to bottom. The parking lot was overflowing. And that was before COVID. I didn’t even make it to Major’s summit. Not a bad day, but too much company for my hiking taste.

If only I’d known about Morse Preserve then…! On my recent visit, I enjoyed the vista with three other people and a well-behaved dog. Hawks caught thermals overhead. Patchy hints of autumn flared here and there. An interpretive sign from the Forest Society identified the various peaks in the distance. Blueberry bushes were all over the place, resting up after what must have been a bountiful July.

No views to the south, but that’s just nitpicking, and I ought to be ashamed of myself for even mentioning that.

Let the Forest Society’s information be your guide to finding this enchanting place. Anyone interested in the area’s broader trail network should consult Belknap Range Trails.

The Belknap Range offers an extensive trail network.

Gilford

Later the same afternoon, Gilford played Miss Congeniality to Alton’s flashy prizewinner. The entrance to another Forest Society property, Weeks Forest, is located across Route 11-A from Gilford’s municipal government complex. Weeks has a couple of miles of flat trails, lined in September with late-summer wildflowers. It’s a pleasant spot. Getting there requires a nerve-wracking walk, or trot, across 11-A (parking is in the municipal complex lot).

Slender trees forming archway, Weeks Forest, Gilford NH
I entered Weeks Forest through an archway of sorts.

Gilford also has a couple of historical markers. I stalk those like they’re big game. I reward myself with a photo and a brief history lesson at each marker. The day’s catch: something old (a story of how Gilford was named for a North Carolina Revolutionary War battle, if you please) and something relatively new (a tribute to the town’s Outing Club).

Gilford NH Outing Club historical marker. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
The Gilford Outing Club marker sits at the base of what must be a fine sledding hill in winter

Home by the scenic route

I stretched out the afternoon’s road trip as long as I could before surrendering to I-93. A wrong turn sent me down some of Belknap County’s finest dirt roads, which I shared with flocks of turkeys blissfully unaware that hunting season began this week. I took it easy through Belmont and Canterbury on Shaker Road. I deserve a cookie, or at least a pat on the back, for resisting the urge to turn onto a road that leads to Concord’s Oak Hill trails and fire tower.

That’s a hike for another day.

Keeping It Local

Granite State Walker sprang to life when I realized that the low-key southern New Hampshire paths I loved weren’t getting the attention they deserved. I’ve spent more than a decade now blogging about these little gems close to home. For my readers in the Granite State’s southern tier, itching for recreation as the COVID-19 pandemic turns everything upside down, this might be a good time to review the nearby spots where we can walk and decompress.

Go ahead. Get out there. It’s worth the effort to find an uncrowded place to walk. Aim for solitude instead of isolation (there’s a world of difference). Social distancing is important, and some of us need to stay extremely close to home, but don’t rule out every outdoor option. Remind yourself that it’s spring, even if this seems like a crazy time. The peepers are waiting for you. The pollen may have found you already.

Can’t get out now? Plan for future hikes. The current unpleasantness is temporary.

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Oak Hill Trails, Concord NH

  • What are your favorite spots in your own town? Are the trailhead parking lots full?Maybe there’s a new park to discover nearby. Look up Parks and Rec or Conservation Commission on your city or town website. You may find trail descriptions and maps available for download.  Maybe there’s a newly-acquired property you haven’t heard about yet.
  • Facebook and Instagram can be gold mines of information on current trail conditions. Follow or “like” pages such as Friends of the Goffstown Rail Trail and Londonderry Trailways (to give just two examples). You might find reports that one trail is experiencing too-heavy use on a particular day, while another one five miles away is much quieter.
  • The Forest Society has more than a hundred properties statewide for you to discover. Forget the one on Mount Major, where the parking lot looks like a mall on Black Friday. That still leaves a bunch of beauties, and there’s probably one near you. Website bonus: virtual tours, where you can check out properties online and plan for future hikes.
  • There’s probably a New Hampshire state park near you. There are some access limitations due to COVID-19.
  • This isn’t the time to push any physical limits. First responders have enough to do at the moment without fetching injured hikers.

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Stratham Hill Park, Stratham NH: a guide to what you can see from the observation tower.

Are you avoiding even solo road trips? Join the club. I’m lucky to have a walkable neighborhood: no sidewalks, but no through-roads, either. That’s where I’ve done most of my walking for the past couple of weeks. I find that a daily walk is an absolute necessity, not so much for the physical exercise as for the mental shift.

Bonus for the soul: I’m seeing neighbors I’ve never met, who are also trying to fight the shut-in feeling that comes with these days. We observe social-distance protocols. The six-foot rule does not bar smiles and greetings.

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Mbari House by Geoffery Nwogu, one of many sculptures along the trails at the Andres Institute of Art, Brookline NH. 

I love the free Map My Walk app on my phone, which faithfully keeps track of my route and distance whether I’m going around the block or up to the Canadian border. I’m seeing how many miles I can rack up doing loops on my neighborhood’s streets. Maybe you like to leave watches and phones at home while you’re out, and that’s fine, too.

Traditional school’s out, gyms are shut, businesses are closed, paychecks may or may not be forthcoming, and #stayhome is trending. My walks are a refuge from all that. 

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Madame Sherri Forest, Chesterfield NH

Golden Time

As Octobers go, this one has been a beauty in my corner of New Hampshire. We’re in that annual golden time, post-bugs and pre-ice. Literally golden, too. The trees are glowing.

rail trail in autumn

October on Nashua River Rail Trail

 Pulpit Brook Trail, Bedford and Amherst

trail sign, Bedford NH

Pulpit Brook trail, Bedford NH

I hadn’t visited Bedford’s Pulpit Rock conservation area in years. A recent mailing from the Bedford Land Trust advised me that the Pulpit Brook trail from that property now extends into Amherst and the Joppa Hill farm. When I compare a newer map of the Pulpit Rock area to my old map from 1997, it’s striking to see how much the conservation area has been expanded with the cooperation of area landowners. I like seeing a greenway linking towns.

autumn leaves

Mid-October: some leaves are just starting to turn.

Silver Mountain, Lempster

The Forest Society’s Five Hikes in Five Weeks program led me to this unassuming little hill with fine autumn views. The drive in was a little hairy: Lempster Mountain Road is paved and fine, and from there South Road is unpaved and sort-of fine, until it isn’t. The last few tenths of a mile of road before the trailhead feature a single lane with deep ruts. It must be all kinds of fun in mud season. At least it’s dead-flat.

But after a couple of minutes of bouncing along…what’s this? A parking area with decorative stone posts. On a dirt road in Sullivan County, no less.

From the parking area, the woodsy walk up to the open summit of Silver Mountain is easy.

berries on hilltop, autumn in NH

Autumn on Silver Mountain, Lempster NH

Silver Mountain summit cairn NH

Silver Mountain summit cairn; Mt. Ascutney in the distance at right

Kidder Mountain, New Ipswich

Here’s another spot I hadn’t visited in ages, just off the Wapack Trail. I had hiked up to Kidder with my son about fifteen years ago, and I recalled it as another one of those easy hills with great views (like Silver Mountain, come to think of it). I’m sorry I waited so long to come back.

The summit vegetation has grown in over the past few years, but the views to the south and southeast are still satisfying. There’s a great view of the southern Wapack Range from Barrett Mountain to Mt. Watatic.

southern Wapack Range

Southern Wapack Range seen from Kidder Mountain, New Ipswich NH

On my recent visit, I shared the summit with a young family. One of the children was a boy, maybe five years old. He surveyed the Wapack Range, and announced excitedly, “I see a volcano!” His dad took the news calmly. The boy wanted a livelier response. “I see lava!” At that point, I thought okay, I’ve got to see what this is about.

Mt. Watatic

At right: Mt. Watatic, faintly marked with old ski trails that spark the imagination.

I moved a little closer to see what the boy was pointing at. It was little Mt. Watatic just across the border in Massachusetts. It had a ski area long ago, and there are still faintly-discernible ski trails. To a five-year-old, those old trails looked like lava flows. I hope I never forget the look on that little boy’s face as he watched Mt. Watatic expectantly, hoping against hope that it would blow its top and show those Monadnocks who’s boss.

Sometimes the best part of a hike isn’t the hike.

Happy October!